k. and the creative process

[Please forgive the momentary fixation on F.K. again. I often return to him for comfort, especially when I can’t write. Reiner Stach has done K. devotees a remarkable service with his meticulous biographical research and synthesis. I have fallen into this book like I haven’t fallen into a book in a long time. And to think, there is one more published volume yet to read! Not to mention the early years that Stach still hopes to cover, should he ever gain access to Brod’s vault.]

Here are a couple of passages related to K.’s creative process…

“He knew that his best, most profound writing sometimes came from a heightened consciousness of depression. However, complete inertia and indifference lurked no more than a breath away.” (p. 151)

“If we were to observe the ebb and flow of Kafka’s literary productivity from a great height, we would see a wave pattern: an initial phase of intensive, highly productive work that comes on suddenly and lasts several hours a day, followed by a gradual decline in his powers of imagination, lasting for weeks, and then finally, in spite of his desperate attempts to fight it, a standstill and feelings of despair for months on end. We do not know why he had to go through this cycle several times, and we will not know until we have a categorical paradigm of artistic creativity. Kafka himself never uncovered the logic behind the igniting and extinguishing of his art; he was always too deeply enmeshed in the effort of tapping whatever reservoir was accessible to him at the moment.” (p. 175)

Reiner Stach, Kafka: The Decisive Years (English translation © 2005; original German edition © 2002)

books!

Since I shut down my Goodreads account, I plan to post more book reviews and bookish thoughts here. This doesn’t mean the blog will morph into a reading blog, but as I’m experiencing a bit of a creative impasse at the moment, there may be more book talk in the near future than anything else. Curiously, even when I’m in a fallow creative writing period I find it possible to write about books. I think this is related to the schismatic phenomenon between reading and writing (creative writing, that is), so that during times of heavy reading one cannot write, and during times of heavy writing, one cannot read. Thomas Bernhard spoke of this (I will have to dig up the quote, as it is typically extreme, and hence, amusing), as have other writers. So, rather than let this blog languish during those times, which is what has occurred in the past, I will endeavor to post about books and writers.

There are a few books I originally wrote reviews of on Goodreads that I will be highlighting, interspersed with whatever books of significance to me that I have recently completed.

Stay tuned for an upcoming post on the elusive Gil Orlovitz.

And in the meantime enjoy this song by Caudal…it’s soothing in a rhythmic, hypnotic way.

Edit: Found the Bernhard quote. It’s from his memoir Gathering Evidence.

“When I am writing I read nothing, and when I am reading I write nothing. For long periods I read and write nothing, finding both equally repugnant.”

peering out from dormancy

The recently sliced up confetti of old words sifts through my fingers as the primitive beats of old heavy music pulses in the other room. Winter is upon us, oh yes, with the wind and the snow and the sleet and the penetrating coldness. Every year the shock of how slowly real winter arrives here beats me about the head with a large stick come late December, early Januaryish. Cold fingers tapping on the keys, the chill of the glass in these windows, how reading in the sunroom suddenly means reading in the ice fishing shack. And how I become a grumbly old man, rug thrown across my lap, scarf encircling my neck, unwashed hair standing on end, burning words in my brain to stay warm somewhere, if not on the outer surfaces, then at least on the inner ones.

I still prefer it to the stifling madness of a city summer. I find it easier to get warmer than to get cooler. The lack of mosquitoes in winter thrills me. Sometimes I loiter in my front yard, teeth chattering, for the mere joy of not being eaten alive by those tiny flying demons.

The bitter cold purifies. Most living things die out there. Or go dormant. I go semi-dormant myself, though this state is not dissimilar from other times of year for me.

On cold days, humans appear on the street as rapid bundles of fabric. On hot days, humans appear on the street as languid loops of flesh. Take your pick.

I’m making good use of my vacation from the-place-that-shall-not-be-mentioned-by-name. In addition to copious reading, I’m indulging in a bit of paper management, something which I tend to ignore the necessity of for months at a time. This activity chiefly entails clearing off a desk I no longer use, famed dumping ground of mail that may or may not require saving and paper scraps scrawled with cryptic notations that I must now decipher in order to determine their value. But it also extends to shredding old writing: abandoned manuscripts, hard copies of blog entries, failed stories, and handwritten pieces that have since been either typed up or rejected. Destroying my own words gives me secret pleasure (well, it’s no secret anymore). So much of what I’ve written is dead to me, and I am merely finalizing that. The end of the year is a good time to do this. One desires a clean slate, at least on some levels. We are of course multi-slated individuals, and not all slates require erasing.

Yes, so here I am talking about the weather and my fascinating domestic life. It’s not what I wanted to write about, but I have not figured out yet how to write about what it is that I want to write about. Oddly enough this past summer was more fertile for that, so perhaps the heat is good for something after all.

Playlist for above activities and subsequent transposition into words:

Universal Order of Armageddon – Discography
Sleep – Volume One
Charles Mingus – Mingus Moves

william james on melancholy

In this letter to his 13-year-old daughter, who was struggling while away at school, psychologist William James (older brother of writer Henry James) offered his insight into what he calls melancholy, or what I would characterize as mild depression, the severity of which still allows for effective self-initiated non-clinical therapy. While I think his description of depression is somewhat dated in parts—or perhaps it’s just his wording (e.g. arising from an organism’s generation of poison in the blood?)—I also think there is some merit to his advice. Here is the excerpt that struck me the most:

Now, my dear little girl, you have come to an age when the inward life develops and when some people (and on the whole those who have most of a destiny) find that all is not a bed of roses. Among other things there will be waves of terrible sadness, which last sometimes for days; and dissatisfaction with one’s self, and irritation at others, and anger at circumstances and stony insensibility, etc., etc., which taken together form a melancholy. Now, painful as it is, this is sent to us for an enlightenment. It always passes off, and we learn about life from it, and we ought to learn a great many good things if we react on it right. (For instance, you learn how good a thing your home is, and your country, and your brothers, and you may learn to be more considerate of other people, who, you now learn, may have their inner weaknesses and sufferings, too.) Many persons take a kind of sickly delight in hugging it; and some sentimental ones may even be proud of it, as showing a fine sorrowful kind of sensibility. Such persons make a regular habit of the luxury of woe. That is the worst possible reaction on it. It is usually a sort of disease, when we get it strong, arising from the organism having generated some poison in the blood; and we mustn’t submit to it an hour longer than we can help, but jump at every chance to attend to anything cheerful or comic or take part in anything active that will divert us from our mean, pining inward state of feeling. When it passes off, as I said, we know more than we did before. And we must try to make it last as short as time as possible. The worst of it often is that, while we are in it, we don’t want to get out of it. We hate it, and yet we prefer staying in it—that is a part of the disease. If we find ourselves like that, we must make ourselves do something different, go with people, speak cheerfully, set ourselves to some hard work, make ourselves sweat, etc.; and that is the good way of reacting that makes of us a valuable character. The disease makes you think of yourself all the time; and the way out of it is to keep as busy as we can thinking of things and of other people—no matter what’s the matter with our self.

As I mentioned above, this advice could be helpful even today for those who are suffering from mild depression. For the clinically depressed, of course, this advice is not sufficient. I’m also not sure how I feel about the way James lightly disparages those who embrace melancholy. On one hand, I can see his point, in that this outlook does direct inward and tends to stay there, where it can fester and corrode our “character” as he puts it. However, I also believe much can be learned from intense self-examination, and if our first instinct when feeling ourselves slip inward is to deny this and instead seek out others to “speak cheerfully” with, then I think we lose out on a possible learning experience. There is also the vast canon of visual art, music, and writing generated by so many melancholic individuals to consider. Were these people to put down their pens, brushes, and instruments whenever they started feeling blue so they could instead go chop some wood or chat with their neighbors, think of what a loss to the world that would be.

Maybe I am taking James out of context, or over-analyzing his advice; after all, he was trying to cheer up his daughter, not writing a treatise on depression. Unfortunately, he’s not here to clarify his thoughts. Interestingly, James himself suffered from chronic depression, and was at times suicidal. I wonder if he ever tried taking his own advice, or if his depression was too crippling to be helped by it.

of scents and sounds: when kindling fails to ignite

In a recent post, a fellow blogger whose writing I enjoy surveyed the sometimes tenuous ability of words to capture thoughts and feelings, to provide us with the solace and understanding we as humans (and perhaps aliens) seek. As someone who has spent his entire life relying on the written word both to interact with and decode the world around me, I read the post with interest, and it set off a chain reaction of thought. Sometimes it feels like we introverts have limited tools at our disposal, but of these tools, for many of us written language is often the sharpest and most accurate. But what about when it dulls or falls short? Unable to write ourselves out of the cages we’re trapped in, what other implements exist to sever our bonds, assuage our pain, aid us in puzzling out our conception of the world and our place within it?

Humans arrive on planet earth armed with an arsenal of senses. From the point of our harsh entry into this world we explore our surroundings using our rapidly developing senses of taste, smell, touch, sight, and hearing. As adults, these senses, though apt to weaken over time, continue to serve as an interface between us and our environment. And so I’ve come to rely on them when words are not enough to dig me out of whatever rabbit hole I’ve fallen down. For brevity’s sake, in this post I will only focus on the two I’ve found to be most effective in mitigating mental or emotional collapse: scent and hearing.

The human sense of smell, while not as developed as in other species, is still a formidable system. We smell food cooking and find it makes us hungry. We know that certain scents can also stimulate memories, as Marcel Proust famously described. Scent (and its companion taste) can therefore help us revisit our past and perhaps plumb its depths for answers to our present questions.

As an example, I will deconstruct the roots of my strong nostalgic attachment to the scent of pine trees. About a decade ago, I moved to a strange and foreign land. It was like no place I’d ever lived before. I lacked the familiar and suffered as a result. One day I discovered a small grove of pine trees behind my workplace. When feeling low at my desk in the windowless bowels of the library, I’d creep out the back door and stroll down the sidewalk, breathing in the familiar pine scent. It inevitably flooded my “emotional brain,” the limbic system, with pleasurable sensations. When I probed at this reaction, I unearthed a store of early memories of summer vacations spent on the northeastern and southeastern coasts of the U.S., where the rich scent of pitch pines (northeast) and loblolly pines (southeast) hangs in the warm summer air. After this realization, I explored what it was about these times that seeded such a deep-rooted nostalgia in my brain. A number of possibilities came to me. For one, these vacations brought me close to nature, and a different kind of nature than what was available to me at home. At an early age, these trips helped form the foundation of my lifelong passion for the natural world. These vacations were idyllic, full of fun and leisure time, all experienced within a framework of the outdoors. Thus, important associations grew within me. I am also a Pisces, the water sign, and have always felt an affinity for water (though we’ve not been without our occasional disagreements over the years). Observing and listening to water soothes me. As a child I spent a lot of time near or in water. And so our family vacations at the ocean reinforced this. Now when I crush a few pine needles between my fingers, the scent rushes to my hypothalamus, triggering the resultant emotional reaction, i.e. all of the above. How does this help me? What I took from this was the knowledge of some actions I can take to improve my mood. I can travel to the beach (not always feasible, but good for longer term relief) or I can sniff some pine trees (easy enough to find and provides a quick fix). This is good information to know and I use it often.

Now let’s set scent aside and move to hearing. Hearing permits a range of constructive activities, but here I’d like to discuss it only in the context of music. In a 2001 Scientific American article, Kristin Leutwyler reports that no human culture on earth has lived without music, that music existed before agriculture, and possibly even language. Think about that for a moment. People may have been making music before they even began speaking and writing! This makes so much sense. Even though I don’t formally play music as much as I used to, I have always felt that it is the purest form of creative expression. As much as I love tinkering with words, sitting down and playing guitar or bass never fails to unspool rich threads of satisfaction inside me. While I have experienced similar transcendent moments while writing, I have to admit that they are rare and fleeting. Music feels like a more natural release; it comes from some deep unconscious stream, where it steeps in primal rhythmic tannins. There were many times in the past, playing in various bands or just casually with like-minded folks, that the music took over, and it was as if we were mere vessels, that the music was playing us, rather than us playing it. It was so much greater and larger than the sum of our collective instruments. The feelings such experiences provoked are difficult to describe. And perhaps this is because music is older than language.

Listening to music can be often nearly and sometimes equally as transcendent as playing it. I can recall certain shows, listening in the shadows as chills traveled through me, the hairs on my arms and neck standing up. Music has so much power, and it is so tied to emotion. In my head lies a map of my life with all the music I know plotted out upon it. Songs conjure people and places, melodies represent events, and in an instant I am transported somewhere else, to the epicenter of the song’s significance to me. Once there I can study its connections to my present life.

Leutwyler notes in her article that music, like scent, also travels to the limbic system, the part of our brain that is, evolutionarily speaking, one of the most ancient. It’s a part that we share with many other creatures, including whales and birds. Leutwyler cites Patricia Gray, head of the Biomusic program at the National Academy of the Sciences, who states in a paper written with colleagues, “When birds compose songs they often use the same rhythmic variations, pitch relationships, permutations and combinations of notes as human composers.” This is one likely reason why we find bird songs to be so appealing. It’s as if all of us creatures on earth, not just humans, are connected through music, making it truly more universal than words. As Dan Higgs sings in “Creation Story”:

but the music pervades
it was music that gave the shove
and resolved in music
we shall breathe

We can use music in many ways. On the simplest level it can elevate mood (or foster wallowing in it, depending on your inclination). My taste in music, like my taste in beer, changes with the seasons. In winter, it’s heavy and dark on both accounts. The transitional seasons, spring and fall, engender tunes and ales teetering on the cusp of light and dark, cool and warm. Take The Smiths, for example. While I consider them a band for all seasons, certain songs and even certain albums fit better on bleak winter days, while others suit the sweet breezes of an early June morning. And this is where it gets more technical. The mental map unfurls and soon I am poring over it, pinpointing exactly why that Ride song makes me think of my old college roommate. Or why that Pixies song wakens memories of a girl in church I burned for in that torturous way shy teenage boys have of burning.  If you want, you can plunge deeper, to the charred terrain on the map, and really begin to excavate. You may get lost, and feel real pain, but there is much to learn in that territory.

At any given moment in our lives, the health of our mental state depends so much on whether we are happy or not. Happiness can be elusive (as can its definition) and doesn’t often linger long, but discovering our individual keys to unlock this state of mind (whatever you want to call it) is crucial to our survival. We need to learn what is good for us and we need to remember it in times of crisis, be it minor or major. In my own experience, I’ve found that writing through trauma can hasten the healing process. But sometimes the words dry up, or their bandages only cover so much of the wound. At those times, I seek out the scents and sounds I know will bring relief. And if I’m really lucky, they will irrigate the mental fields enough for words to grow again.

where silence reigns*

*stolen from Rilke, not that he cares now

Late summer music coming through the speakers now. Confusing with such snow pouring down at streetlight level. A week is long; a week is time like saltwater taffy stretched as far as you can swallow. Not as far as the years you’ve seen. Delve into the past and balk at words since forsaken. Self-censor then and hope for the best. Look to fire’s cleansing fangs for answers you cannot give. Dreams, it’s always been dreams that fuel those flames. Conquer them and you’ll rid yourself of answers. Thus ridden will you fall. Thus ridden will you never wake. Even yet, what words we write. Words in spite; words dull, not bright.

this just in: subtle schedule shift forces new cracks in worn shellac

The pendulum swings upward again. Remember a sky of polished stone. The tree of many birds. Cracked sidewalks underfoot while perched alone at the end of the earth. How hard it is clawing our way up to have a look around. How sweet the first taste of syrupy mania when we finally do. Tap your foot to the mighty dirge. Scream ’til you’re hoarse inside. Run until your soul leaves your body and then keep on running until it returns. Record your dreams and re-read them until you understand. Untether yourself from what you think matters and wait for a sign. Pay attention to the crows circling above at dusk. Their presence is no coincidence. And neither is yours.

aggravation

My bikes are all jacked up and I can’t seem to fix them. I ordered a part and the place has sent the wrong size twice now. TWICE.

The crime chopper keeps flying over my house. Daytime, nighttime, all the time.

The autumnal equinox began last night and tomorrow’s high is supposed to be 95. WTF?

The words quit spitting out, mind’s dry as an old corn husk.

I’m tired.

not really off the wagon

I’ve been making music again.  It feels really good.  I’ve also finally entered the digital recording age, so I am better prepared to collaborate with a long lost musical soul mate who remains separated from me by a slight, but still significant, geographical divide.  However, I have a hard time diverting the creative river inside me to multiple channels.  So, the prose writing suffers when the music writing flows.  We’ll see what happens.

3:33

Wake up uncertain, through blurred eyes reach out, unmask the dread box full of time:  3:33 AM.  I am untethering; I feel this, yes, I do.  I float above myself all day, drifting, occasionally deleting Russian spam, wondering when this gossamer thread shall fray, then sever, to release me.  I remember being young, staring at the ceiling, imagined walking on it, stepping over door frames to enter rooms; it seemed better up there.  My thoughts upside down, always, then and now; my records all broken, need to melt them down, re-groove with new sounds and words.

  • Recent Posts

  • Navigation Station

    The links along the top of the page are rudimentary attempts at trail markers. Otherwise, see below for more search and browse options.

  • In Search of Lost Time

  • Personal Taxonomy

  • Common Ground

  • Resources

  • BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS